Wednesday, May 17, 2006

I first met Vice President Dick Cheney two weeks ago at a crowded party. When he found out I was from the Republic of Georgia, he said, “What can I do for you?” I answered quickly: “Defend my country from Russia.”

We talked about the fact Russia was muscling the former Soviet countries in Eastern Europe, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Kazakhstan. On the eve of his five-day trip to Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Mr. Cheney told me the United States would do its best to encourage democracy and freedom in the post-Soviet era. He knew how millions of people were suffering under a modern version of the “Iron Curtain.”

In his speech in Vilnius last week, the vice president voiced the harshest criticism of Russia from a U.S. official since Cold War ended. Russia’s withholding oil and natural gas from its neighbors was unacceptable. “Tools of intimidation,” he said. And of course Moscow denied it.

But the vice president is correct. Russia is bent on punishing several post-Soviet countries, struggling with their infant democracies but determined to conduct a free and open society.

Russia is trying to break the back of freedom with economic sanctions bordering on the bizarre. Several months ago, Russia banned all wine from Georgia. More than 97 percent of Georgian wine was sold to Russia.

The Russian government claimed the world-famous wine — of which I consumed my fair share over the years — was tainted, a ridiculous excuse at best. (Imagine the East Coast banning California Chardonnay.) Desperate winemakers in Georgia are scrambling to find international buyers, and the economy has already taken a direct hit. Which is, of course, what the Russian government wanted all along.

Calling home to my brother and family, I receive more bad news every day. There is no economy. Unemployment is high. Russia is strangling my country for one reason: America backs the Georgian people and its decision to become a democracy.

Last week, the Russian government also prohibited importing Georgian bottled spring water — arguably the best in the world, but I’m biased — sending the economy even deeper into depression.

This winter, Russia cut off gas and oil supplies to both Georgia and Ukraine. How many innocent Europeans suffered for that act, universally condemned as a cruel form of blackmail?

Russia is a bully, punishing its smaller neighbors with gross pettiness and petulant behavior. President Vladimir Putin — who is well educated — needs to take control. Many people assume he is a strong leader within the Kremlin. But in fact, he is not. The ultranationalists, led by head of the liberal union Vladimir Zhirinovski, the corrupt, homophobic, billionaire Moscow Mayor Yuri Lushzkov and leftist, the so-called “Black General” Albert Makashov, as well as the head of the Communist Party in Russia Genadi Zuganov are behind the crackdown on democracies, even inside the country.

They dream of restoring the Soviet Union to all its crumbling, dysfunctional glory. They dream of seeing the United States under a red flag (seriously). Communism is a latent virus in Eastern Europe, but forces are bent on seeing it become active again. (Why else would Moscow reward the corrupt dictatorship in Belarus and punish others who don’t fall in line?) In Washington, Russian ambassador Yuri Ushakov — a talented diplomat — is bewildered by the recent turn of events. He told me last week during a daylong seminar with American-Russian business leaders at the Russian Embassy, that he doesn’t understand the chauvinism of a few select politicians. He is of course, of a younger generation, as am I.

I grew up under communism and its harsh, vicelike grip on my country. Drinking Coca-Cola was prohibited. Watching Hollywood movies might land you 12 years in a Siberian gulag. Reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn? You might as well drink arsenic the next morning and get it over with.

A schoolmate of mine showed up one day in a pair of new Nike sneakers. For the next three weeks, he was mysteriously absent from school. The local police took him in for days of questioning. What connections did his family have in America to send him such a decadent present?

Torturing journalists. Killing opposition voices. I remember listening to the Soviet-scrambled Voice of America in a musty, dank basement, afraid we would go to jail. Cars stopping in the night; KGB officers in black leather coats branding Kalashnikovs, taking innocent people away in the dark. My own mother and father were arrested for something I had written against the government, and taken to jail. They let my mother go but kept my father in a cell with dozens of other prisoners forced to sleep standing up. He died of a heart attack a week later.

My grandfather was executed in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s reign of terror. Do gambling-crazed, oil-rich, nightclub hopping Russian citizens really yearn for their ignoble past?

I was amazed the other day watching Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld field questions about Iraq, and watching protesters politely escorted out of the hall. In my day, they would have been executed in two hours as traitors by the Troika.

After my talk with Mr. Cheney, I was relieved to discover he knew what to do. I applaud his recent visit to Lithuania and standing up to the Russians. And I often wonder what became of that criminal pair of Nikes.

Tsotne Bakuria is a former member of the Georgian Parliament and visiting scholar at George Washington University.

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